In spring 2008, I won a music competition at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was studying piano performance. Now it is called Calvin University, but back then it was one of the finest private liberal arts school in the States. A liberal arts education meant the school offered well-rounded approach to the undergraduate degree, equipping the student with various disciplines of knowledge not only the major she / he is pursuing. For someone like me, this meant that even though I majored in music, I also had to take classes in world literature, philosophy, sciences, psychology, and even fun sports classes like tennis and karate.
The piece I won with was the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major by Dmitri Shostakovich. I worked on this piece intensively with my piano teacher Ms. Hyesook Kim. By intensive I meant 6-8 hours a day, no matter what day, for about a year. I remember one cold winter-and winters are FREEZING in Michigan- when I was practicing with my eyes closed to focus on memorization of the piece. I felt the piano keys getting sticky, and when I opened my eyes I was surprised to see blood on the white keys. My fingers were dry and the skin was cracked. The vulnerable skin must have gotten caught while doing fast passages on the wooden keys, causing them to bleed without my notice. That was how much effort I put into the concerto.
However that year for me was especially meaningful not only due to winning and performing the piece with the Calvin College Orchestra (under the direction of Robert Nordling). It was important because that was the first time I really focused and worked SO HARD on something, with amazing results. For the first time in my life I tasted the feeling of satisfaction and how good it felt to have my hard work acknowledged. “Success breeds success” is a well known Suzuki concept in the music education world. For me, though, the success was more than musical.
For the first time in my life I tasted the satisfaction of having my hard work acknowledged. I had been a bulimic since my junior-high years in Bandung, Indonesia, way back from 2001. I tried to stop, but was constantly met with my own failure. In 2008, my daily piano practice routine was mixed with hours of binging and purging. I go into more detail in another post about my journey of healing, which included loving friends who struggled side by side with me. What I would like to point out here is that my success with the piano concerto boosted my confidence and happiness. The more I played piano, the happier I became. A happy Airin grew to be a strong Airin who would eventually win her 10 year battle with the disorder.
In 2018, exactly a decade later, Maestro Robert Nordling invited me to perform this piece again with the Lake Forest Civic Orchestra in Illinois. The performance is available here for your listening and enjoyment. The blue haired pianist is happy, strong, and very proud of herself.
Do you know what makes YOURSELF happy? Do you remember moments when you were very proud of your hard work?
Ask me how many calories are in a pineapple smoothie. Or a bowl of noodles. Or a blueberry muffin. I can rattle the numbers off the top of my head, because I am obsessed with the food I consume.
There is an app called MyPlate which helps me calculate calories throughout a given day. It breaks down the information to the macro and micro nutrients level, so I can monitor if I had too much of any one element. I then average throughout the week according to suggested health guidelines, factoring exercise and water intake. The result : I never have to guess or worry whether I ate too much. I just look at the record.
This is me now, in my early 30s, implementing some heavy duty Military Discipline.
Let’s rewind back a decade, to a Me in her early 20s.
She’s in the bathroom, kneeling over the toilet bowl. Two fingers are in her mouth, poking her own throat to stimulate gagging. Her stomach complies, and starts to throw up. In reverse order, the Thanksgiving meal came back out. Brownies,pumpkin pie, the meat. The sour cream and chips which were appetizers her American hosts had prepared. They had a tradition of inviting international students over for Thanksgiving meals. Airin was an Indonesian student on F1 visa, studying piano performance in Michigan. Her fingers were long and beautiful – they looked like they were made for the keys.
They didn’t know her fingers were also adept at making her digestive system throw up every meal, every single day. On bad days, she would be hogging the common bathroom. It was common because she always lived with roommates and apartment mates, some of whom noticed very quickly her queer bathroom habits.
Back then, I looked in the mirror and hated who I saw. The binging and purging which started in my early teens stayed with me for 10 years. I had no control over myself, my mind, my eating habits. I lost the daily war with my own beast. And it made me hate myself more.
My saving grace came first in black. Seriously. It was a house mate who reached out to me. She was Ghanaian, and No, I was not participating in any intentional cross cultural living programs, although that semester many eyebrows were raised when I moved in to live with 3 African girls. They were loud, noisy, and laughed so much. They constantly fretted about their hair. My introverted Asian self was thrilled and amused, at the same time thoroughly out of place. We’re friends until now, keeping the Accra – Bandung connection alive via Whatsapp and regular Zoom calls.
She first reached out to me, asking me if I needed help. I denied everything, but she wouldn’t buy it. It also didn’t help that I left my diary lying around – for this I credit myself. At least I wrote. I wrote in my diary, and I accidentally left it on the common kitchen counter. So Ghanaian eyes had solid proof, and her loving heart wouldn’t let me off the hook that easily.
To have other people know my flaws and harmful habits was essential to breaking that hellish prison of the mind. The next semester I started living with other friends- lo and behold fate brought another fellow bulimic. This time I was the one who reached out to her. Together we stumbled, fell apart, held hands, picked each other back up, and began our healing journeys. Our sisterhood held strong over the years until now, across the vast Pacific.
The final unseen, powerful force which carried me to my liberation was Music. With capital M, because I believe Music is is not just sounds, or instruments, or musicians, or microphones. Its more than what you see on stage, on a computer screen, or on a piece of paper. Its more than what you hear with your ears, or through your headset, or blasting through gargantuan sound systems in a stadium.
Its something like the sweat drenching the drummers’ back, the drop of blood from the clarinetist’s lip, or the calloused left fingertips of the cellist. Its something like the chirping birds, the deep notes of the blue whales, the shrieks of the winter wind.
Its something like the silence after Amen, the unheard overtones of the harmonic fifths in the air, the rhythm of the rolling waves.
This Music is the language of the universe itself, and I was so privileged to experience shimmers here and there in my studies as a concert pianist. Being so close to such a force slowly yet steadily awakened my inner voice. The joy of a Bach prelude, the pathos of a Brahms intermezzo, the sublimity of a Beethoven sonata… The time I spent with Music continued to strengthen my inner voice, until I was slowly able to master, love, and be at peace with my one and only, dear self.
Published in FemAsia Magazine July 2020. With thanks to Devika Brendon. Click here to view.